Hello dears! Today we have a very special guest with us, an expert on the bijou! Bijou is slang for vagina by the way my sweets. This gentleman completed his undergraduate thesis on Denis Diderot’s 1748 story ‘Les Bijoux Indiscrets’, a fascinating allegory that in short tells the tale of a Sultan who is presented with a ring by a genie, which when rubbed and pointed at the genitals of any women nearby, begins speaking of their past amorous experiences. Vagina Monologues eat your heart out! Anyway, what follow is our little interview on erotica, fun folds and contemporary porn. Enjoy!
EP-C: Hello! Thank you so much for joining me today. I have to start our interview by asking what it was that first interested you in writing on Diderot’s erotic novel?
Yes, this is a good question, and it may prove difficult to answer as my interest in eighteenth century “pornographic” literature emerged from out of a context in which I was exposed to a great number of things, intellectually and physically. I was involved in rather intense studies during my undergraduate. I had participated in a number of courses that introduced me to a lot of critical literature that I had never heard of. I was reading lots of theoretical texts (structuralist, postcolonial, feminist, etc.). I was also developing psychologically in a less “regular” way as I stayed at home during my undergraduate years and lived with religious and, in some ways, rather conservative parents (I say, in some ways, because they were significantly less conservative than the majority of the members that made up the religious community that we were part of). I also had not yet “lost” my virginity at the time of the first two years of my undergraduate studies. I was quite conscious that this set me apart from what I took to be the “normal” sexual experiences of students, namely, that they were bonking all the time! This, I felt at the time, set me apart from my peers. I couldn’t quite face them with the reality that I still hadn’t “done it.” With these things in mind, I would say that it was a number of things that got me interested in “pornographic” literature. Diderot’s story was one such story.
But to be more precise, I would say that my interest developed in a more sustained form during my late teens. I had cultivated a penchant for “those books which one reads only with one hand,” as Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it in his Confessions. I guess I was trying to sublimate my libidinal desires by way of the only way I could at the time; this basically meant through a kind of “enlightened,” or pseudo-intellectual, taste for porn. This, I presumed at the time, would give a certain “learned,” if not “connoisseurial,” air to my rather blunt need to relieve my physical needs (basically, I performed a kind of dilettantish “fascination” with the “pornographic”). I had to sublimate my desires with recourse to things that wouldn’t sublimate them “more directly” as I simply did not have access to those things (like sexual partners). I had to sublimate my energies via the construction of a personality, that is, a fiction (it is not surprising that I read “dirty” novels). With this transformation of the brutal simplicity of my urges into a sort of quasi-intellectual pursuit fit only for the most “delicate of minds,” I essentially covered over the fact that I needed to bust a nut. I also covered over the rather embarrassed feeling I had when I would imagine myself, as if in a kind of tableau vivant, in the relatively inert state of masturbation. I used to sometimes think of myself wanking and be shocked by the dumbness of the act. I used to see myself as a kind of tragi-comic character, bent over, shuffling his hand in order to produce the desired effect. I would also like to add that “regular” porn – by which I mean pornography that comes in purely visual form – was pretty much impossible for me to get hold of during my undergraduate years. So, I read instead.
I quickly realized, however, that the books I was reading were significantly more interesting than mere wank fodder (I can’t actually remember actually reading a book “with only one hand”). The books I was reading became useful in relation to some other works that I was reading, mostly the theoretical works I was reading during my studies. For example, I was very struck by the fact that what we putatively call “pornography” was such a constitutive feature of the materialist philosophies of the French philosophes (Diderot, d’Alembert, etc.) and their legacies.
At the center of all these realizations was the work of the Marquis de Sade. It was with his writing that I had a completely new sense of the kind of material I was using to bash the bishop! Basically, I never used Sade’s writing as a supplement to sexual gratification. If you read his work you will realize why. It is perhaps the most shocking and disturbing literature ever to have been published. Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom is the only book I have had to put down and stop reading. This brought in a whole new dimension to the literature that I was reading, one that was potentially created a difference from what I understood “porn” to be. At the time, I understood this difference in terms of that between “erotica” and “porn.” The most obvious distinction is that porn had a kind of direct, mechanized use: it is employed to satisfy a human need (porn even formally resembles and reflects this mechanized use – the actors and actresses look the same, the same acts occur at the same time, the staging, lighting, sound – the whole mise-en-scene – is relatively generic, etc. all this sameness made wanking easier in some sense, that is, more mechanical). Erotica, however, seemed less easily reducible to such simplistic and restricted use. It seemed to speak to a more complex experience, on that couldn’t be so easily categorized or grasped (I was reading a lot of work by the French philosopher Georges Bataille).
I began to read “pornographic works” such as Diderot’s story of the magic ring in light of this distinction or, at least, in light of a proposed distinction between the “pornographic” and the “erotic.”
EP-C: Earlier in our series, we heard from female Cum, who certainly had a lot to say! The idea of genital translation seems like an excellent aid to superb sex. Have you ever wished for such a magic ring (particularly during your undergraduate years? I know I did.)
I think there would be something monstrous about genitalia speaking! Interestingly, the act of “allowing something to speak for itself” was a central aspect of early French materialist philosophies. I have always felt that this had something to do with a connection to the juridical injunction of res ipsa loquitur – “things speaking for themselves.” Law, embodied in the word, is the absolute manifestation of the “truth” of something in its most direct and irrefutable form. There is, then, a legislative impulse in the materialists – in stories such as Diderot’s – organized by the necessity of speech, of forcing a thing to speak its own truth. Think about something like Sade’s novel. For the most part, the works consist of endless monologues and discussions about sexual acts and their social import (to annihilate society!).
(The novels are extremely long – Juliette, for example, is well over 1000 pages. This is not fortuitous. It has something to do with the kind of politico-philosophical relation to a bunch of inter-connected issues at work in the mid-late eighteenth century.) There are relatively few words dedicated to the fucking; the fact that Sade’s protagonists “discharge like muskets” is indicative of how quickly he wants to get those parts of the narrative over and done with so he can move onto his pseudo-philosophizing. How, then, do we account for this “logorrhea”?
If I recall correctly, Michel Foucault develops this insight in some passages and texts on Sade. He essentially understood Sade as a kind of “disciplinarian” of sex and that “speech” occupies a central place in the practice of discipline, of the subjugating processes internal to subjectivation. “Logorrhea” is, accordingly, an effect of disciplinary society. But, I think that a talking cunt or cock is more horrifying than the effects of a legislative epoch. It seems to bring into the open a connection with something that we cannot properly speak of, that is, something that we cannot properly symbolize. Jacques Lacan would probably call this ineffable “something” the “real.” In some sense, the stories – pure fantasies – that I read operate as a kind of protective screen that help us mediate the ineluctable connection with the inner most identity of our psycho-sexual selves. The fantasy helps us “look” at everything other than the terrifying void that constitutes our very subjectivity. To wish for a magic ring like the Sultan’s in Diderot’s story is to long for the actualization of fantasy. For Lacan, such an actualization would be too much for any individual to handle. The conversion of fantasy into reality would be the production of a monster. To think about it entirely another way, however, I would be tempted to think that a talking genitalia would rob us of our own fascination of constantly thinking and talking about “it.” It would also short-circuit the psychic element in sexuality, that is, our mental relation to our ostensibly sheer physical life (Freud insisted on the psycho-sexual character of our desire).
Also, I would be interested in the extent to which we would be “liberated” were our genitalia to speak (via the magical powers of a ring), that is, were our bodily existence translated into words. And is the condition for the possibility of liberation a connection to the sheer facticity of genital eloquence, a kind of “coming-clean” of all the inner secrets of the body? The wonderful thing about Diderot’s story (notwithstanding all the other socio-political issues – colonial, gender, class – that it reveals) is that the “jewels” do not, strictly speaking, confess the content of their past experiences. In some sense, of course, they do as they are forced to speak via the magic of the Sultan’s ring. This coercion, however, is not the same as the subject’s own internalization of the necessity to confess of the pulsations of one’s own body. The context of the Sultan is despotic; the context of the confession within a post-revolutionary context – that is, the epoch in which individuals developed self-reflexive relations to themselves (the epoch in which the individual could say “this is my body”) – is one in which there is a shift in implication and social function of speech itself. In Diderot’s story, the “revelations” were directed toward a sovereign agent who already had power over his subjects. In a non-monarchical society, the confession is one directed toward oneself – freedom is achieved via subjugation (I take this to be Foucault’s point about the condition of disciplinary society – freedom is a distinctively dialectical issue).
EP-C: Diderot’s story must have been considered rather scandalous at the time. Erotic fan fiction, as we explored previously, is an exponentially growing genre, and is apparently the medium of choice for many women when they let their fingers do the walking. Do you think such an historic text still holds erotic power in an age of proliferated sexual speak and visual aids? Where sex sells and is almost everywhere.
Yes, I think it was scandalous, as were Sade’s novels and other illicit literary material emerging in Europe in the mid-late eighteenth century (Fanny Hill by John Cleland was published in 1748 and Tom Jones, although less explicit, in 1749). But I think the scandal was mostly reactionary; readers were simply shocked of the explicit nature of the tales. This strikes me as the least scandalous thing about them though. What is really difficult to comprehend is the “erotic” element articulated therein, namely the element that dissolves clear categories of association. I think that there is a place for “erotic power” in an age of sex speak and porn aids, but as a point of critical contestation of the components that dominate our historical juncture. If, for example, eroticism signals beyond the limits of categorization of sexual life then it troubles a phenomenon like contemporary porn and its experience via the Internet. Think of the most typed in words in search engines when people want to download or view pornography: “TEENS” and “MILF.”
If we set aside the absolutely interesting contradictory nature of these categories, the fact that they are raised, in cultural practices, as categories – as fixed, infinitely repeatable units of information – is striking. I would be tempted to say that pornography occurs at the point of the constitution of the categories, and not at the level of the actual material or content viewed. That is, I would be tempted to say that if there is indeed a “pornographic impulse” in the digital epoch it is organized around the unconscious production, and reproduction, of categories (“TEENS,” “MILF,” “BLOWJOBS,” “AMATEUR,” “ANAL,” etc.). I sometimes imagine a scenario in which a young man or woman wanks off to the repetition of these words, either enunciated or typed out. To put it more directly and provocatively, I would say that the pornographic is experienced at the point of the category and all the hidden “treasures” it, paradoxically, conceals and reveals.
I guess this brings me to the other parts of your question. I used to think that fan fiction somehow problematizes this taste for categories precisely because it engages a different kind of temporal experience to porn: unlike short, punctual categories like “MILF,” fan fictions require a durational commitment for their experience since they require you to sit and read (some of this fan fiction is quite extensive, stretching over the course of long, relatively complex narratives). I think the temporal differentiation between visual porn – especially as it is presented in the major porn-sites – and porn-as-literature needs to be explored further. I don’t think that fan fiction properly extends itself into erotica since it very often operates still at the received level of standard visual porn; sometimes I feel like it simply extends the technical regime of visual porn without actually doing anything to complicate the dominant function of visual porn (which is to say, it does not exploit in a more intense manner the distinctions between the literary and the visual – something that I think is absolutely crucial in the historical development of the pornographic novel and its relation to the standard notion – the received idea, that is – of “pornography as such,” so to speak).
I am tempted to say the same thing for supposed “alternative” porn. I remember watching a film where the women involved in the action were considerably more hirsute than the usual glabrous starlets. I guess showing hairy legs, for example, is an important counter-gesture to the mainstream stuff. I can’t help but think that it simply operates as a kind of empty “negation” of the mainstream, that is, as a kind of pure oppositionality that doesn’t actually do anything to logic of domination that organizes the mainstream. Interestingly, the actual sexual activity in this “alternative” piece simply reflected the usual “narrative arc” of standard porn films (there was a blowjob scene, a “doggie-style” scene, a “reverse-cowgirl” scene, etc.). It simply reproduced crucial constitutive features of the standard pornography that it was sort of competing with (at the level of contestation). The reproduction sort of fell flat; it didn’t do anything to transform the components that constructed the standard porn. (I would give another example, if I had time. It concerns pornography that involves menstruating women.)
I think this has to do with the absence of a space for contestation in a society in which everyone is permitted to generate his or her own content. The Internet is the perfect embodiment of this flattening out of social antagonisms and confrontation. I would be tempted to say that the “erotic” literature of the past holds no power in an age in which sex is ostensibly ubiquitous. It has no power not because a certain experience of sex holds sway, but rather because we occupy, at the level of mere appearance, a digital space in which all modes of experience and expression can be affirmed. Erotica is potentially the name of the negation of porn, but it is diluted in the topographical distribution of cultural forms in a digital, Internet age. Thus, its “power” is totally impotent.
I would, however, say that a detailed and systematic exposition of the “sexual” character of the digital age – “our” age – is yet to be composed. I don’t really like making the assumption that “sex sells and is almost everywhere” as I think this is too flattening of an historical judgment. It simply relies on what appears as most obvious and, by extension, of the transformation of what looks like the most obvious into what is most certain. For example, sex has always “sold.” This doesn’t really give any historical specificity to our current situation. What we are concerned with is how the transformations of sex as a cultural form changes the way we interact with it (I would not at all be surprised if someone has already written a work called “Sex in the Age of Technological Reproduction”). There is also the whole problem of the interrelation between “sex,” “erotica” and “porn” that needs to be properly examined (are they simply cognates? I don’t think so.)
EP-C: Finally, as we’ve been talking about speaking vaginas, I must ask, if your penis had anything to say right now, what would it be?
Oh god! My tired, old compatriot would probably moan about all the prostate and hemorrhoid issues that will soon trouble my lower abdomen (due to sitting down so much). His days of adventure are well and truly over. So distant are they, in fact, that they no longer even exist as memories.
EP-C: Thank you so much for your candour. Friends, I think the lesson here is to listen to your genitals. Whilst thinking with your special place is often a pejorative observation for irresponsible behavior, it is nevertheless vitally important to hear them to be in touch with yourself and your partner/s. Sex is intellectual, emotional and physical. Until next time!